Posh – “Port out, starboard home” – or not

It was Grandpa Potts in the film version of Ian Fleming’s Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang who was just off to India in his levitating hut. Played by the wonderful Lionel Jeffries, Potts cavorts to the song “Posh”, reinforcing the myth of “Port out, starboard home”.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) is a musical loosely based on Ian Fleming’s novel Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car (1964) – written after all the Bond novels except The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy and The Living Daylights. Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes scripted the film and the Sherman Brothers wrote the songs. It was directed by Ken Hughes and produced by Albert R. Broccoli (co-producer of the James Bond series).

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the story of Caractacus Pott, an eccentric inventor who lives with his wife and twin eight-year-old children, Jeremy and Jemima, on their hilltop farm. In the film version he does not have a wife and the family surname is altered from “Pott” to “Potts”. Caractacus sells a candy invention, Toot Sweets, to candy magnate Lord Scrumptious. He later turns an old racing car (originally named the “Paragon Panther”) into the flying, floating motor-car of the title.

Grandpa Potts is a slightly loopy, well-meaning relative who spends a lot of time treating the household as if he were still in the army. He hints that he fought for the empire and spends his days imagining travels in his “man-cave”, a hut outside the farm.

JeffriesLionel Jeffries (1926-2010) was an English actor, screenwriter and film director who built a successful career playing oddball or comic characters. His acting career reached a peak in the 1960s with leading roles in films like Two-Way Stretch (1960), The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), First Men in the Moon (1964) and Camelot (1967). Later Jeffries turned to writing and directing children’s films, including The Railway Children (1970) and The Amazing Mr Blunden (1972).

Climbing into his extremely confining flying hut, Grandpa Potts sings the song “Posh” in one of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s most memorable film scenes:

“O the posh posh traveling life, the traveling life for me
First cabin and captain’s table regal company
Pardon the dust of the upper crust – fetch us a cup of tea
Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh!”

P&O(1)The story goes that “Posh” derives from the “port out, starboard home” legend supposedly printed on passenger tickets for the Peninsula and Orient (P&O) vessels travelling between the UK and India in the days of the Raj. Another version has it that PO and SH were scrawled on the steamer trunks by seamen when allocating cabins. Britain and India are both in the northern hemisphere so the port (left-hand side) berths were mostly in the shade when travelling out and the starboard ones when coming back. So the best and most expensive berths were POSH, hence the term.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to confirm this story and it may have been dreamed up retrospectively to match an existing sense. Its true origin is uncertain. The term was used from the 1890s onward to mean a dandy. George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody, first published in serial form in the English satirical magazine Punch in 1888, has a character called Murray Posh, who is described as “a swell”. The book is a satire of the times and most of the character’s names are intended to match aspects of their personality, so it is quite probable that the Grossmiths used the name Posh with its current meaning.

The first recorded use in print of the adjective “posh” is a cartoon which contains the following dialogue between an RAF officer and his mother, also in Punch (September 1918):

“Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there.”
“Whatever do you mean by ‘posh’, Gerald?”
“Don’t you know? It’s slang for ‘swish’.”

The English poet Edward Fitzgerald – who rendered into English the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám – is another possible source of the word. He had what newspapers of the day (around 1908) euphemistically described as a “most unaccountable admiration and friendship” for his boatman Joseph Fletcher, who was known as “Posh”. In Fitzgerald’s words, Posh was “A great man. A man of the finest Saxon type, blue eyes, nose less than Roman, more than Greek, and strictly auburn hair that any woman might sigh to possess.”


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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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